SINGAPORE: She was the daughter of swimming coaches in China, but was told that she was too short for the country’s national swim team. Since coming to Singapore at the age of 13, Tao Li has been driven to build a successful career out of defiance – that same defiance which has at times been reflected in controversial statements over the years, on issues such as youth development and funding.
Following a successful games in Beijing, where she finished 5th in the 100m butterfly, Tao Li entered the 2012 Olympics as a medal hopeful; but in her pet events, failed marginally to reach the finals. The games in London were therefore her last. Citing her age, she announced early this year that she would not be headed to Rio. The 26-year-old, however, still has her eyes on the 2017 SEA Games and the 2018 Asian Games. And for now, she’s added two more things to her “to do” list – focusing on her new swim school, the Tao Li Swimming Club, and on completing her studies.
She went “On the Record” with Bharati Jagdish – on integrating foreign-born athletes, getting that hunger in Singapore’s athletes, and her thoughts on life outside the pool. They started first with her decision to change focus this year.
Tao Li: I think I want to focus on one thing. This year, I want to focus on my studies. But this will take up only a little bit of my time during the day, so I thought I should finally set up a swimming school.
I’ve seen many sportsmen who don’t know what to do after their swimming life. Immediately, they stop, and they feel that it’s not the life that they want. I’ve always wanted to start a swimming school. So since I have time now, why not just start it now?
Bharati Jagdish: You have, however said that it is a regret of yours to not be able to win an Olympic medal.
Tao Li: Yes.
Bharati Jagdish: So I’m just trying to reconcile the two, this desire to start a life after sports, or to at least engineer a life after sports, versus this big regret that you feel not having won an Olympic medal. Why would you feel a sense of regret when it was a conscious decision that you made to not even compete in the Olympics this year?
Tao Li: Well, if I go to the Olympic Games this year, I would want to win a medal. But, considering everything, I don’t think I have the ability to get a medal in this short period of time because last year’s results, even though I was a SEA Games champion, I know I will not be able to win an Olympic medal. So it’s best for me to slow it down and just focus on other things.
Bharati Jagdish: Why couldn’t you become good enough to actually attain an Olympic medal this year?
Tao Li: I think the first thing is my age, as there’s a limit. It’s already there. My recovery and everything has slowed down, and my injuries, my knees injuries, my shoulder injuries. So it’s hard for me to train that hard to get me to the top again. I think I should do something else.
Bharati Jagdish: Over the last few years though, why haven’t you been able to reach Olympic medal standards?
Tao Li: I became distracted during my peak. I lost my focus. There were things – like I had to change coaches.
THE IDEAL COACH
Bharati Jagdish: You have said before that having three coaches in four years leading up to the London Olympics disrupted your preparations, and after that you could not regain peak form.
Tao Li: It’s not that I really want to change coach because there’s something going on. At that time I was still young. I ended up with a coach that I was not really comfortable with. But I had no choice, because you live in Singapore, and that’s the coach that they help you find, and you have to stay with him. Once you change coaches too many times, and you don’t produce results, they’ll think that you just blame others and actually all the problems are coming from you. I produced good results on the Asian level, so it was ok.
Bharati Jagdish: While you showed results at the Asian level, you have said that you couldn’t at the Olympic level. One could say that indeed, as you put it, “all the problems are coming from you.” These were qualified coaches. But you didn’t want to work with some of them, and now you’ve said that the changes were distracting. Were you the problem?
Tao Li: I think that’s the part that’s difficult to explain to the government. The government is not a sportsperson. They just think that, “Oh, this coach is good on paper. This coach is an Olympic gold medalist, and they have produced so many good athletes. Why can’t we just fit you in with this coach?” But different people need different sorts of training. I did ask my first coach, Peter Churchill to come back, but they rejected it because they had already hired a coach.
Bharati Jagdish: What were you looking for in your coach?
Tao Li: I’m kind of lazy. If no one is there, I will just cut corners. So I always look for a coach that can be strict, yet flexible. Strict on certain things, but sometimes when you know the athlete really feels tired, just let them rest, before pushing it some more. So I ended up having some coaches who were “no, no, no.” Everything is “no”, and (you) must do the things that he thinks is right.
But we athletes have thoughts and ideas too, so we really want to explain our thoughts to the coaches, and hope the coach can understand.
Bharati Jagdish: You wanted a consultative type of relationship.
Tao Li: Yes.
TAO LI – A “DIVA”?
Bharati Jagdish: People thought you were being a diva, not just when it came to your coaches, but also, in 2008, when the Singapore Swimming Association (SSA) introduced a 15% levy on the cash awards given to winning swimmers like you, with about 6% set aside for youth development. You said, “If they [the SSA] want to cultivate youth, they should find their own money, not pay using our awards. It’s through our hard work that we got the money.” You also said it had been your school and not the SSA that had borne the expense of your overseas training, but why can’t you be more supportive of the “tax” so to speak, considering it was going towards developing talent in swimming, a field you’ve said you care about and want to contribute to?
Tao Li: Yeah. But award money is different. They always think you’re here because you want the money, but the thing is, if you don’t work hard, if you don’t for example, get the Asian Games gold medal, how will you have the money?
Bharati Jagdish: But some taxpayers’ money went into your development, so why do you object when part of your award money goes towards other sportspeople’s development? You come off as being selfish.
Tao Li: But before I became a famous person, back when nobody knew me, how I got there – nobody wants to see that. They just see when you get famous, and then they’ll say you just want the money. No. Not true. We have to work hard for the money that is there, for every single, cent. It’s not only me. If you swim and win the Asian gold medal, you will also get the money.
Bharati Jagdish: You earned it.
Tao Li: Yeah, but people don’t think of it that way.
Bharati Jagdish: How does that make you feel?
Tao Li: I feel angry. We are people too, so when other people talk bad about you, you’ll feel hurt, or irritated, or things like that. But that’s life. That’s what you have to face. At the most, I can just ignore it.
GETTING SPONSORS ON BOARD
Bharati Jagdish: You have managed to get your own sponsors. In fact, you’ve been held up as an example – you and a few other athletes have been held up as examples when it comes to winning sponsorships. To what extent do you believe it’s the athletes’ responsibility to find their own money?
Tao Li: Yes, but sponsors are only looking for their own benefits. They’re not looking at how hard you train. They always look for results. So if you’re good, they’ll come to you. They’ll find a way to look for you. Even if they don’t have your phone number, they will go to websites to look for you, to ask the government for your phone number. If you’re not good, and you ask for them for help, they will help you. But it’ll be small, like a few T-shirts, a few pairs of shoes. So if you’re good and you get results, they will help you in the sense that you can make a good living.
Bharati Jagdish: A lot of athletes may say, “How will I become good if you don’t help me to begin with?”
Tao Li: I think that’s how the world works. They only see the results. It’ll be hard for them to pick a 10 year-old girl with potential because even though she has potential, how are they going to know that she’ll be good in the future. You might give up halfway. Then what? All the money invested is gone. So as a business organization, they won’t take that risk.
SINGAPORE ATHLETES AND HUNGER
Bharati Jagdish: So what’s your advice to athletes who are trying to make it. Or people who are thinking about a career in sport, considering that you may not get a lot of support until you prove you’re good. What’s your advice to athletes whose calibre may be a question mark, even to themselves?
Tao Li: Once you choose a sport, you need to really focus, and really go for it, and don’t give up. So now I’m actually coaching the older athletes, like 14, 15-year-old athletes. They just maybe come 5 times a week and wonder, “How come I’m not improving?” So when I was an athlete, I didn’t see these kinds of things, but now that I’ve become a coach, I do. They look at each other and say, “If he could not come for training today, maybe tomorrow I won’t come for training.” They’ll think, “It’s so hard for me to wake up in the morning, and have to go into the water, and to do some intensity work. I don’t want to, because after that I need to go school.” They think that’s too tiring for them. They don’t really have the mindset. And they’re not hungry enough to want to win. Because if you want something badly, even if you have to go to work after this, you will come early, you will come on time. I did it.
Bharati Jagdish: And if you don’t get the results, you only have yourself to blame, because you didn’t come on time, you didn’t go for training. But something has to be said about making it easier for athletes to train full-time.
Tao Li: Yes, but even for that, they have to make sacrifices. I don’t see that. They have to become good to find sponsors, get government money. Unfortunately in Singapore, most of the athletes or their parents will think that it’s your fault.
Bharati Jagdish: It’s “your fault” as in it’s the coach’s fault?
Tao Li: Yeah, they think it’s the coach’s fault that you’re not bringing their child up to that level. And they don’t consider how many sessions their children come (for), and whether even though you came, whether you put in effort – things like that. They don’t really care.
Bharati Jagdish: But you yourself said that who your coach is, is very important to your success.
Tao Li: But you still have to work hard for it. People won’t just give it to you.
Bharati Jagdish: So have you already gotten complaints?
Tao Li: Not yet, not yet. Probably because I’m still new in the coaching area, so they think, “You’re good and you have a lot of knowledge.” So they haven’t start complaining yet.
Bharati Jagdish: It’s the coach’s job to motivate the athletes. What are you doing to motivate them?
Tao Li: I’ve tried to explain, educate them that it’s very important that they come for every single session. You have to have progress. Just like school. You cannot go to school for one day, and you rest 5 days, and you go the next day. People will already be learning other things and you won’t be able to follow. Then that’s forever gone. So they’ll say, “Yes, yes, yes.” But then they come to the pool, and they just do whatever they like. They must want to do it.
Bharati Jagdish: Why do you think people aren’t hungry, like you were hungry?
Tao Li: I think it’s because they really have a good family here. They have everything they need. Their parents are working really hard, they have cars, and they have the house. They don’t see any need to really work hard, because the parents provide (it) for them. But for me, it was different, because when I first came here, I had to rent a house, and had to ride a bicycle to my school and my training place. I had to run up and down. So it was a very difficult time for me.
Bharati Jagdish: Is that regret for you – that you don’t come from a more fortunate, rich family?
Tao Li: No, I think if I come from a wealthier family, I may not feel that hungry that I would want to become a champion.
Bharati Jagdish: What will it take for Singaporeans to have a sense of hunger in spite of our generally comfortable lives?
Tao Li: I think it’s the system that we need to change. Especially life after sports. In sports, the government has set up a really good system. You can get a scholarship if you are really good. So actually you don’t have to worry about work. Now the only thing is that after sports, what are you going to do? So you have to let the parents see that after sports, you have many options, become a coach, learn sport science, etc. You need to sacrifice some of the comforts to become a really good athlete.
Bharati Jagdish: Do you think parents should take away some of these things from their children to show them the importance of working hard?
Tao Li: Yes, I think it’s very, very important because if they give them everything, why should they work to become anything.
MANAGING THE POLITICS OF SPORTS
Bharati Jagdish: We talked earlier about some of the controversies you’ve been involved in – the coach issue and prize money issues. You mentioned to me off-air earlier that there’s a lot of politics in sports. How do you deal with it?
Tao Li: I’m very lucky. My first coach, Peter Churchill let me stay away from politics. Once you get older, you have to step into all the politics. But I’m lucky because my results are good, so they can’t really do anything about it, like tell me what to do or not do.
Bharati Jagdish: But then as you said, as you got older, you had to get involved. How do you stay focused on the sport while having to deal with all this?
Tao Li: I just don’t care. For me, personally, I just don’t care. Because I think that if I care about the politics, I can’t produce results and the situation will get worse. I’m not hired or employed by the Singapore Swimming Association, so I should have the freedom to speak up for myself. I just speak my mind. And then they don’t really dare to really push you.
They are careful in managing me, because once I let the public know, it could become a big hoo-ha. I think they’re a bit scared of me. That’s always my strategy – once I’m good, you can’t do anything to me.
Bharati Jagdish: We talked about your issues with coaches. What kind of a coach are you?
Tao Li: Fierce on (the) field, but I will explain to them why I’m doing this, and let them understand why it is going this way. In the swimming pool, you can never negotiate with me. Outside the swimming pool, we can be friends. If you need help, anything that you need, I can help you. I can give you advice.
HER MOTHER – HER BIGGEST MOTIVATION
Bharati Jagdish: You talk a lot about your mother. Was she your biggest influence?
Tao Li: Yes. My mum is my biggest motivation and influence, and she’s the only one in Singapore who is always beside me no matter what problems I face. Her life here is not easy as well, because we were new to this country and my mum didn’t speak English, we didn’t have a really good foundation here, so we really had to start from zero in this country. In Singapore if you don’t speak English, people will sometimes ignore you. And even though we Singaporeans can speak Chinese, we don’t feel comfortable doing it. But my mum can only speak Chinese. So sometimes she faced some difficulties and she didn’t know what to do. She felt lost, and I felt pretty sad for her, and I felt like I really should do well in this country. That’s the only way that I can pay her back.
Bharati Jagdish: She made sure that you assimilated.
Tao Li: Well, when I first came to Singapore, I was so reluctant to speak English and I didn’t really care. Because my swimming was really good in China, and at that time my province had no one who could really swim. I was in the top 8 at the national level. So I was quite a big deal in my province. Then I came to Singapore and no one cared. Only my mum chased me everyday about learning English and going to class. I felt a bit down. And I had no friends here, because of the language issues. I was always crying and quarreling with my mum saying that I want to go home and then she just said “no”.
She said, “you just stay here for another 2 more years. If we can, then we’ll go on. If we cannot, then we’ll go home.” After a while, after Primary 6, I made some friends here. I slowly adapted to this environment, this country, so I felt okay. People also noticed my swimming, and I always appeared in the newspapers. So I got more confidence in myself.
FOREIGN-BORN ATHLETES AND INTEGRATION
Bharati Jagdish: Some of the China-born athletes who represent Singapore never made an effort to do what you did. A lot of them still don’t speak English. They never bothered assimilating. What do you think of the other foreign-born athletes?
Tao Li: I think it’s kind of different. They’re here purely for representing Singapore to go to competitions and because they were already good, the government imported them. I came when I was very young, and at that time, I didn’t know whether I would be a star.
Bharati Jagdish: You wanted to build a life here, your mother wanted to build a life here for the both of you as well.
Tao Li: Yeah. Correct.
Bharati Jagdish: I can see that difference but ultimately, considering how Singaporeans have reacted to foreign-born athletes, do you feel perhaps they should have done more in spite of the fact that they were imported purely to represent Singapore in international tournaments?
Tao Li: I think yes, they should be learning English, but I know the table tennis players or the badminton players don’t really have time to learn the English. They’re always travelling. It’s different from swimming because in swimming. They have to go every single month. I seldom see them in Singapore. Every month they have to travel. They don’t really have the time to study.
Bharati Jagdish: But it hasn’t really endeared them to Singaporeans. Some would you say the harsh comments and the xenophobia are warranted.
Tao Li: This really hurts because we are wearing the Singapore flag, and I’m training here, and from young I’ve lived here. I’m no different from Singaporeans. It’s just that I was not born here. But people saw me as a foreigner and they always said bad things even though I won a medal for the country. They just say, “no, you’re not one of us.” I believe that all the athletes here have the same mindset. We just want to do the country proud and hope the people will support us.
Bharati Jagdish: But you’re different from the others as you mentioned. The others don’t even seem to want to connect with the people.
Tao Li: I think they feel scared. If you don’t speak English and the only things you hear are people saying bad things about you and that you are not one of them, you may be scared to connect. They will feel like: “Oh, they say bad things about me, so why should I just go out and talk to them?” I think if we, Singaporeans are more friendly to the imported athletes then they will be willing. I think they will be willing to talk to you, or to help you if you have any problems. If you’re in interested in sports, they can even coach you.
So I think it’s two ways, not just one way. The imported athletes also need to learn the culture and really get along with all the Singaporeans. I think both sides can work together to overcome this.
Bharati Jagdish: Some athletes may feel they’re not here to connect with Singaporeans. They’re here to compete and win medals. That’s their job. How important do you think it is to connect with Singaporeans?
Tao Li: I think it’s really important, especially in Singapore. Yes, you have to focus on certain things that you do, because the government brought you in to produce, not to mingle with the locals. But it is so important for all sportspeople and the foreign-born ones also to share experiences with our people, to help them develop an interest in sports, so that more people will take on the sports so that our sport can grow.
FINDING THE NEXT JOSEPH SCHOOLING, THE NEXT TAO LI
Bharati Jagdish: What will it take to produce more athletes like Joseph Schooling and athletes of your calibre or even better than you, among Singapore-born athletes, aside from stimulating their sense of hunger?
Tao Li: We have the most swimming pools in the world, I think. But why can’t we produce the next Joseph Schooling or next Tao Li? I think the first thing is our coaches. The reason I started a swimming school is to groom coaches, because most of the coaches in Singapore today don’t have knowledge and all you need to do is to take the National Coaching Accreditation Programme (NCAP) and you can become a swimming coach. Many of them know how to swim four strokes, but they don’t really know how to coach. They might teach very young kids – 5 or 6-years-old. But that’s a very important age. If they learn the wrong techniques, it becomes hard to correct it later when you get to competition level.
Then when you get to the top, there may not be many suitable coaches. The problem is we have many national swimmers, but then after sports, they don’t want to be a coach. They want to be a doctor, they want to be other things. So we have a gap there.
Bharati Jagdish: Why do you think that is?
Tao Li: My view is that they think that a coach is just a coach and you can’t only depend on coaching to live a good life in Singapore because of the high cost of living. Also, some of our friends in swimming come from wealthy families, so they might just think, “well, I just want to do something else.”
Facing the pool for many years, they just don’t want to see the pool anymore. Ang Peng Siong and David Lim, our very good swimmers, started their own swimming schools and they helped our local swimmers. But the younger swimmers don’t seem to want to do that.
Bharati Jagdish: What is your message to the people who think that way though? Why should they choose this path?
Tao Li: I think Singapore is getting better and better in sports because we’re investing more into every single athlete. If you have talent, being an athlete is actually better than working outside, because sports is very special. You have talent. All you need is the right mindset.
Bharati Jagdish: You said money is a concern.
Tao Li: Yes. Today, the money is quite good in this market. If you do it well, if you have the knowledge, people will admire you, and people will trust you, and they will have confidence in you. I think the parents of young talent today, are from the 70’s or 80’s. Their mindset is, “Well, there’s no future in sports in Singapore so you have to go study.” Yes, you have to study, but at the same time, you could excel in sports and make it a career that pays well. Things have changed.
Bharati Jagdish: Why did you choose not to go to America?
Tao Li: Things there are more advanced, but they will not try to accommodate you. You will have to suit their system. I would have just been any other swimmer there. But here, I am seen as important for the country.
Bharati Jagdish: You like feeling special.
Tao Li: Yes.
Bharati Jagdish: Some people are willing to take that risk. So they become the small fish in a big pond. But you want to be the big fish in a small pond. Why not aim higher?
Tao Li: Honestly, it’s other things that make me unhappy. The food, the culture.
Bharati Jagdish: So that’s more important to you than really pushing the boundaries and seeing how good you really are?
Tao Li: To me, that’s the most important thing; especially the food. I need to recover. The people around me. If I’m happy, then I’m willing to train. If I’m unhappy, why should I even train? That’s the most important thing to me.
HER FATHER – THE PROBLEM-SOLVER
Bharati Jagdish: We’ve talked about your mother. Where’s your father in all of this? He’s a swimmer too, right?
Tao Li: Yeah, he’s a swimmer too. He’s always there for me when I need help and then he will fly over to solve the big problems. If my mum breaks down or something, he will come in and solve all the problems.
Bharati Jagdish: When was the last time he came to solve a big problem for you?
Tao Li: That’s a very long time ago. I don’t really have a really big problem now. My life’s quite smooth.
Bharati Jagdish: Do you remember what that problem was?
Tao Li: It’s a problem with dealing with the clubs. I wanted to change clubs and there was some difficulty.
Bharati Jagdish: Yes, the club change was publicized when it happened. Why doesn’t your dad move to Singapore?
Tao Li: Because he has a really good job there and he’s working for the government, so he can’t really leave China.
Bharati Jagdish: Have you thought of going back to China?
Tao Li: No, I would like to stay in Singapore because my reputation is here.
Bharati Jagdish: Do you regret not making it in China?
Tao Li: No. I think in Singapore, you have more opportunities, you have more chances to go to international meets.
Bharati Jagdish: Because it’s less competitive here?
Tao Li: Not really. If you want to go to the world stage, it’s the same. You have to qualify.
So it’s not less competitive. It’s just more opportunities. In Singapore, it’s purely based on you being good in the sport and you can go to international meets. But sometimes in China, it’s not just about sports.
Bharati Jagdish: What is it about then?
Tao Li: The competitions at the provincial levels are very hard. If you make it, but there are others who are similar in standard, they’ll just cut you, and they will let other people go to the meet. It doesn’t depend purely on the results.
Bharati Jagdish: But China is a great sporting nation.
Tao Li: First of all, it’s the population. They have more than 1 billion people and they focus more on full-time training. Their athletes are professionals. They train full-time. But I don’t want that for myself. I think it’s important to learn other things also, not just swimming, swimming, swimming.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE MONEY
Bharati Jagdish: But if people don’t dedicate their time fully to sport at least for a period of time, or have the means to, wouldn’t Singapore be fighting a losing battle when it comes to making a mark in the global sporting arena?
Tao Li: All about money.
Bharati Jagdish: It’s all about money?
Tao Li: Yeah, it’s all about money. It’s like if let’s say, I pay you $200,000 per month to just be a professional athlete, I think a lot of people will do it. And after sporting life, if you can get a government job and you can earn like $10,000 per month? Will they do? Yes, they will. And so I think it’s all about money.
Bharati Jagdish: In order for government support for sports to grow, there needs to be buy-in from Singaporeans in general. How would you make a case for this? Why should more taxpayers’ money go to sports?
Tao Li: If Singapore sports is good, it can really put us on the world map so that people know Singapore. And let’s say you want to do business with them, they’re willing to help.
Bharati Jagdish: Have you ever thought about what it would be like if you were to lose all this one day?
Tao Li: I think my fame will be lost in about 2 years’ time. I totally accept it. That’s why I want to quickly set up my swimming school before I lose my fame. I need to let my business become famous, rather than me. The reason that I start my business is because I want to grow younger athletes.
Bharati Jagdish: If you weren’t a swimmer, what do you think you would be doing?
Tao Li: I don’t know.
Bharati Jagdish: Never thought about it?
Tao Li: Yeah, never thought about it before. Because my life has always been about swimming, but now I want to succeed as a businesswoman.
Bharati Jagdish: I understand you have help in terms of the business element of your swimming school. But what do you hope to achieve for yourself through this, aside from growing the sport in Singapore?
Tao Li: When you get to the stage I am at now, there are a lot of rich people around you. I look at them and I want to be as good as them. There are always people who are better than you, so I’m quite interested to see why those people are successful. I like to work with successful people, so that I can learn from them. I want to learn what their journey is like.